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Venice Festival Turns on the TV With Top Italian Series

It’s a pretty safe bet that the Italian entries at Venice that will make the biggest splashes this year are both TV series premiering in the official selection: Paolo Sorrentino’s limited series “The New Pope” and Stefano Sollima’s cocaine-trafficking drama “ZeroZeroZero.”

While these are both shows by directors who also work in film, Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera has no qualms in pointing out that in the film sphere the domestic pickings were slim this year.

Venice selectors received 186 Italian films, which amounts to roughly 10% of the total submissions. “And more than half were unwatchable microbudget first works,” Barbera says. “You wonder: why produce this stuff?”

However, the TV series, both commissioned by Sky Italia and screening out of competition, are on a different level. “They were both a big gamble,” Barbera says. And they cost a lot, “but you really see the results.”

Barbera says everyone already knows how brilliant Sorrentino’s “The Young Pope” was. So “The New Pope” should come as no surprise. But when audiences on the Lido see “ZeroZeroZero,” starring Gabriel Byrne, Andrea Riseborough and Dane DeHaan, Barbera is convinced that they are going to agree with him that it blows “Narcos” out of the water.

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“In the world championship [of TV series] we are the world champions,” Barbera says. “There is no comparison, in terms of quality. In terms of everything!”

Barbera is convinced that Italy has talent that could also be making great movies. But “often producers don’t let them express their potential, because they just aren’t ambitious or bold enough,” he says.

That’s why the Venice topper has chosen three Italian competition entries that reflect “the highest ambitions and the most radical challenges.”

The locals in competition all have Southern Italian settings. Mario Martone (“Capri Revolution”) is back with “The Mayor of Rione Sanità” a contemporary adaptation of the play about organized crime by late Neapolitan playwright Eduardo De Filippo. Pietro Marcello’s “Martin Eden” is an adaptation of Jack London’s novel about a young self-taught American sailor struggling to become a writer transposed to a fable-like 19th century Naples. And Sicilian cult filmmaker Franco Maresco has landed a slot with “La Mafia non è più quella di una volta” (which translates as “The Mafia Isn’t What It Used to Be”), billed as a grotesque look at present-day Palermo through the eyes of famed photographer Letizia Battaglia, who chronicled the Sicilian capital’s Mafia wars in the 1970s and ’80s.

Oscar winner Gabriele Salvatores (“Mediterraneo”) is in an out-of-competition slot with road movie “Volare,” which follows a boozing lounge singer (Claudio Santamaria of “They Call Me Jeeg”) who accidentally meets his teen son, who has autism, for the first time. He has an epiphany and decides to hit the road with the son. Pic, which also stars Valeria Golino, is penned by Umberto Contarello (“The Great Beauty”).

But the Italian film that best attests the new Italian film directors unconstrained by insular mindsets is Giuseppe Capotondi’s English-language heist thriller “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” selected as the festival closer. Mick Jagger plays a reclusive art dealer alongside Elizabeth Debicki (“Widows”), Claes Bank (“The Square”) and Donald Sutherland. It marks Capotondi’s first time back at Venice since 2009, when his debut feature, the taut thriller “The Double Hour,” made a splash on the Lido. Since then, Capotondi has worked mostly in TV, on Netflix’s Italian original “Suburra” and Epix’s espionage drama “Berlin Station.”

Ironically, it took a trio of U.S. producers — David Zander of MJZ, David Lancaster of Rumble Films and William Horberg of Wonderful Films — to get one of Italy’s hottest helmers back on track for his second film.

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